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Alma Russell Letters

Letters of British Columbia men on active service with Canadian and British Expeditionary Forces, 1914-1918. Learn more.

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BC Archives MS-1901

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of bodies lying about unburied, some on the parapets, sometimes half buried, some in the open. There are many bodies mere skeletons, some with flesh on; all can be identified by their French, German or British uniform, particularly by their boots. When we first came to this part, of the line we were horrified and shocked at the number of these bodies uncared for and lying where they had fallen. There was a terrible hand to hand fighting here last summer, attacks and counter-attacks every day and I remember reading of parapets being built up with German bodies. I was loth to believe such could be possible, yet the sights I have seen on this battlefield go far to confirm this seeming scandal of warfare. There are hundreds of bodies and skulls above ground in such numbers that we never look twice at them. Farther away from the battlefield things are more civilized as hundreds of white crosses attest.

There is a dreadful smell everywhere particularly after a shower of rain and it is a wonder how anybody lives at all in such conditions. To show you how things are, this is the only part of the line where rum is being issued in summer (rum for Winter only). Fever and diarrhoea are so bad here that rum is given daily and very glad we are for it. We get it in the firing line at “stand down”, i.e., at half past three in the morning. The night is, of course, the time for attack and nobody is allowed to sleep at night but all must be alert and ready at any moment. As soon as it is daylight, we all “stand down”. Certain sentries are posted for the day, and, worn out with a night’s watching we are all ready for sleep. In this part of the line there are no dugouts or shelters of any kind in the firing line. We have to sleep in the trench on a waterproof sheet or on the fire step, or stretched on the top of grenade boxes. But it is little sleep we get, the Germans are always sending over rifle grenades and mortars. If you are awake, you get 2 or 3 seconds warning by the whizz to jump for it. If you are asleep — ‘nuff said’.

We are in this time for 18 days, 6 days in firing line, 6 days in reserve (½ mile block) and then 6 days back again in firing line. We have done 11 days in so far and return to firing line tomorrow night. We had a hell of a time up in the firing line in the first 6 days; it rained practically the whole 6 days, starting in a terrific thunder storm. In the com’n. trench the water was up to our waists, and in the firing line up to our knees in places and never lower than ancle deep and muddy clay in proportion. There was no place to sleep except on top of the parapet and the idea of the german machine gun dispelled this plan. We had to doze leaning against the parapet with a waterproof sheet over our heads.

You may think I am stretching a point, but I swear I didn’t get 6 hours sleep the whole 6 days; many took sick with “trench fever” and several went down the line with “trench feet”. Our boots being all the time in water made our feet swell and some had very bad feet. I stuck it out but was all used up for want of sleep. We were a hell of a sight when we trooped down to reserves here in the creeping light of dawn. Our overcoats and tunics a mass of mud, even our helmets all mud

BC Archives, MS-1901 Box 1 File 5 / RUSSELL, Alma M., 1873 - 1964. Victoria; librarian. / Letters and associated items from Private Jack A. Gunn, 1915 - 1916.

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